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Jack River’s Guide to the Northern Territory

Singer, songwriter and activist Jack River talks to Rolling Stone Australia for our #UpInIt series, where Australian musicians reveal their unique perspectives on the NT.

Rolling Stone Australia’s Up In IT video series began with two guides to the Top End from artists who were born, bred and maintain deep roots in the North Territory: folk songwriter and Warnindilyakwa woman, Emily Wurramara, and Yolŋu surf-rock outfit, King Stingray. Jack River’s guide to the NT is a little different—River is a New South Welsh indie-pop artist who got to know the NT while on tour.

“Often when you’re touring it’s easy to stick to the plan and stay for a night and fly back home, but as soon as I got to Darwin I realised that there was this whole other world that I hadn’t been aware of in my own country,” River says.

River was raised in Forster, NSW, on Worimi country, and now lives in Mollymook, NSW, on Yuin country. She visited Darwin for last year’s BASSINTHEGRASS Music Festival, appearing alongside the likes of Peking Duk, Violent Soho and Missy Higgins.

River decided to stay in the NT for an extra week after the festival. She hopped in a hire car and travelled to Litchfield National Park, 100km south-west of Darwin. One of her favourite parts of the sprawling national park was Florence Falls, which are in the middle of a monsoon forest.

“There were tens, if not a hundred people swimming in this waterfall,” River says. “It was just a really cool experience to swim around with strangers and laugh and have a good time.”

Jack River has a strong connection to the water. Growing up in Forster, she spent long summer days at the beach honing her skills as a longboard rider. She’s now based a few hours south of Sydney in Mollymook, a place renowned for its pristine beach. But splashing around in the wild waters of the NT was a completely different experience.

“I remember seeing this tiny little turtle swimming around and Annie [Hamilton] and I were just obsessed with it.” River and Hamilton took a few photos to memorialise the trip. “Having beautiful little Polaroids to stick in your diary or on your fridge, they remind me to go to places like Darwin and get out of the monotony of life and get out and go somewhere wild.”

BASSINTHEGRASS is held on Mindil Beach, just a hop, skip and jump from the Darwin CBD. This year’s event is happening on Saturday May 21st and the lineup includes Jessica Mauboy, Dope Lemon, Vera Blue, the Teskey Brothers and several others. 14,000 people made it out to Larrakia country for BASSINTHEGRASS 2021—the biggest turnout in the festival’s two decade history.

“I’d heard so many stories about BASSINTHEGRASS being one of the funnest festivals to play and go to, and that people in Darwin get a little bit troppo,” River says. Troppo, hey? “They’re really there with you,” she explains. “They’re present, they’re singing along, they’re dancing, and they really care about the music. So, for me, it’s a show that I’ll probably never forget.”

Jack River has been a touring artist for much of her adult life. Her first EP, On Nature / Part One, came out in 2013, when River was 21 years old. Jack River signed with I OH YOU for her next single, 2016’s “Talk Like That,” which precipitated a major growth in her audience. “Talk Like That” appeared on River’s breakthrough EP, Highway Songs No. 2, which also included the ARIA Gold single, “Palo Alto”. River’s next single, “Fool’s Gold”, eclipsed the success of “Palo Alto,” achieving ARIA Platinum accreditation. 

Jack River quickly became one of the country’s most in-demand live performers—within a couple of years of “Talk Like That” coming out, she’d performed at Beyond the Valley in Gippsland, Victoria; Lost Paradise in Glenworth Valley, New South Wales; Big Pineapple Music Festival on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast; and travelled to Brighton, UK, for the Great Escape.

But BASSINTHEGRASS stands out. “Playing that show made me realise how important music is and how much it brings to people, and that’s because of the crowd and how they were that day,” River says.

Jack River is an active political campaigner, and this side of her personality has begun to seep into her songwriting. River’s 2021 single, “We Are the Youth”, is a political pop song written to express the frustrations of millennials and Gen Zs regarding Western governments’ paltry action on climate change. (“We Are the Youth” was nominated for Best Single at the 2022 Rolling Stone Australia Awards.)

Jack River has also been a vocal advocate of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which calls for a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution. River was humbled by the opportunity to walk on Country in the NT.

“You feel a certain sacredness in the land,” she says. “You can understand why the national parks and all of the Country up there is so special and important to First Nations people—there’s a deep sense of groundedness and untouched wild nature that you don’t feel in other parts of Australia.”

Jack River believes Australians of all stripes should make the effort to understand the cultures and lore of First Nations communities. “As a young Australian, we have so much more to learn and understand and pay respect to, and the Northern Territory is an incredible place to start.”